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Ancient Egypt - Pharaoh Akhenaten

Updated: Feb 10, 2021


Known as Amenhotep IV before he changed his name to Akhenaten, he became the crown prince during his father's reign, as featured in the last episode. Crown Prince Tuthmosis was originally to succeed his father, but died relatively young and the throne passed to his younger brother. Debate circulates whether his father, Amenhotep III, used Amenhotep IV as a co-regent. Nevertheless, he became king upon his father's death.

Queen Nefertiti

The beginning of Amenhotep IV's reign marked no great discontinuity with that of his predecessors. Not only was he crowned at the temple of the god of Amun, in Karnak, but like his father, he married a lady of non-royal blood, Nefertiti, the daughter of the vizier Kheperkheperure Ay. Nefertiti's mother is not known, but Ay was the brother of Queen Tiye.

Nefertiti was made famous by her statue, which is one of the most copied works of ancient Egypt. It was attributed to the sculptor Thutmose, and it was found in his workshop. The bust is notable for exemplifying the understanding Ancient Egyptians had regarding realistic facial proportions. It is described as the most famous bust of ancient art, comparable only to the mask of Tutankhamun.

The Aten and the City of Akhetaten

Initially, Amenhotep IV lived with Nefertiti and his six daughters at Thebes. He built several massive buildings at Karnak, including temples to the god Aten. The god was usually depicted as a sun disk with rays extending with long arms and tiny human hands at each end. The Aten was not a new deity, but had been venerated since the Old Kingdom as a relatively minor aspect of the sun god Ra.

Year 5 of Amenhotep IV's reign changed everything. He disbanded the priesthoods of all other gods and diverted the income of these cults to support the Aten, which he was establishing as the sole god of Egypt. To emphasize his complete allegiance to the Aten, he officially changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten, 'Living Spirit of Aten'. He also began construction of a new capital called Akhetaten, 'The Horizon of the Aten'.

Known as el-Amarna, it was a virgin site not previously dedicated to any gods or goddesses. To speed up construction of the city, which was located halfway between Memphis and Thebes, most of the buildings were erected with mud-brick and white washed. The most important buildings were faced with local stone. Amarna is the only ancient city which preserved great details of its internal plan, in

large part because the city was abandoned after the death of Akhenaten. Bob Brier notes, “Akhetaten was an entire city built at one time to the glory of one god.” This was a first for the history books.

Akhenaten centralized Egyptian religious practices in Akhetaten, though construction of the city remains to have continued for several more years. His temples to Aten were constructed on a massive scale and were open to the sunlight, unlike the dark temple enclosures as before.

In Year 9, Akhenaten banned all images except the solar disk and declared that the Aten was not merely supreme god, but the only god to worship. In doing this, he created the world's first monotheistic religion, noting 'There is no god but the Aten.' This was an incredible declaration in a world of polytheistic religions; an abstract god with no image. This must have been a very confusing time for the Egyptians. They never had an abstract god before. They were use to gods you could create in statues, something physical. With Akhenaten, now you had the rays of the sun, only one god,

something way ahead of its time... something truly amazing.

An interesting message, and one to consider, Akhenaten wrote that the Aten was the god of everyone: the Syrians, Palestinians, and Nubians. This belief changed the divine order. With this concept, Egypt was no longer special in a sense, 'The Aten shines on everyone'. Akhenaten presented himself as the only intermediary between Aten and his people. He ordered the defacing of Amun's temples throughout Egypt and made a complete break from the priests of Amun.